The Premier League returns on Friday and, as is always the case, there will be a few new things to get used to. From longer matches, to a clampdown on time-wasting and more bookings for bad behaviour, expect referees to show their mean streak this season.
Referees chief Howard Webb has insisted change is here to stay, rather than being enforced for just a few weeks. So, players and managers are going to have to adapt, and quickly.
We run through what supporters should look out for as the new season kicks off.
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Games are going to last a lot longer
We first saw it at the men’s World Cup in Qatar, and English football got its first taste when the new EFL season kicked off last weekend when all but two matches reached total clock time of 100 minutes. Now it’s coming to the Premier League.
It’s all part of a drive by The IFAB, football’s lawmakers, to increase effective playing time, otherwise known as how long the ball is in play.
“Effective playing time has decreased pretty much year-on-year in our sport and it got to a stage last season where it was 48 [minutes] in League Two, 50 in League One, 52 in the Championship, 54 in the Premier League, and that’s being seen in other parts of the world as well,” Webb explained. “We saw that the World Cup utilised a different methodology, which clearly was seen as successful by FIFA.
“We’re asking [referees] to apply exact amounts of time; for goals that are scored from the moment the goal is scored until the restart, when substitutions happen we’re asking them to add on the time that takes in totality rather than just a rule-of-thumb 30 seconds like has traditionally been the case.
“Alongside that is an approach whereby we are asking the officials to be proactive in getting the game restarted, not just standing by and letting the time tick up, or add up, and also dealing with players who delay the game, who waste time, and to do that in a more consistent way than we might have done in the past.”
The aim isn’t to have players running around nonstop for 90 minutes, but to get that effective playing time up. Some national associations had suggested changing the game to two 30-minute halves, with the clock being paused for any stoppages, but the IFAB felt that would actually lead to matches taking up an even longer footprint.
Despite the excessive added time over the first EFL weekend, Webb says there’s a learning curve, and players and referees will adapt.
“I think things will settle down a bit, players will realise that if they do waste time they are going to be caught and that will lead to a modification in player behaviour, so there will be less time wasted,” Webb added. “We’ll see the amount of time that goes on the board come down because of that. We’ll see officials being more proactive to ensure the game restarts, again we’re changing mentalities and actions across the board.
“We’ll continue adding time in that precise way we need to for goals and substitutions. Don’t forget the only focus we’ve said to the officials is exact time for goals, exact time for substitutions and exact time when red cards happen or penalties are awarded, everything else is the same apart from being stronger with delaying tactics and time-wasting tactics.
“In the Premier League, we saw 8½ minutes last year. We looked at the events that happened last year and applied the new methodology, and we think that’s going to go up to about 11½ minutes per game, so three minutes more. We are expecting to see an increase, but not quite as much as what we saw with the EFL over the weekend.”
There’s concern from some players about the additional workload this will present, and Manchester United defender Raphael Varane has criticised the increased game time. But at least for now, the majority of supporters seem to be in favour; focus group studies by the Premier League suggested that 61% of fans prefer the World Cup method of adding time, while 70% feel that time-wasting tactics are cheating.
Clampdown on tactical time-wasting
As well as adding time lost through natural stoppages, the plan is also to take stronger action against time-wasting — both the obvious and the indirect. Anyone who commits a clear and deliberate act to delay the restart of play, to waste time or try to achieve a tactical advantage will now be booked.
Think of a player who gives away a free kick or throw-in, and then nonchalantly taps the ball away down the pitch to delay it being taken. They will now be booked, when previously they would have got away with the less obvious kind of kicking the ball away, and the time added on. Goalkeepers who delay the taking of a goal kick will be cautioned much earlier in games.
Some time-wasting to break up play owes more to the dark arts: the act of falling to the floor with an injury to slow down the pace of a game and frustrate the opposition, or to instigate a tactical break with a coach. From this season any player who goes down must leave the field for treatment and stay off the field for a minimum of 30 seconds before being invited back on. It’s hoped the prospect of playing with 10 men for a short time will discourage it.
“I remember a situation where the water was being brought out before the ball goes out of play,” Webb said, “and then all the players go over to the sidelines. We’re asking that the officials ensure that if a player does go down — obviously we don’t know if they’re injured or not, we take it on face value — and they’re asking for the physio to come onto the field then that will be allowed to happen, but the player must understand they’ll be given time on the sidelines for treatment to take place.
“We’re hoping that will be more consistently applied this season in terms of how long you stay off the field. We think it’s a step to a game that has less interruptions, less time on the board, and it’s a way of doing it.”
Teams to be punished for surrounding a referee, poor behaviour
The sight of several players surrounding a referee to protest a decision has grown in recent years, and last season the English Football Association charged more clubs than ever before due to this poor behaviour.
Now, a strict code of conduct will be applied, otherwise known as the Participant Charter, developed in partnership with the League Managers Association and Professional Footballers’ Association. The aim is to stop copycat behaviour at all levels, and change the way players act towards officials. In other sports the referee is treated with far more respect and, in time, Webb wants this to be mirrored in football.
“People will have to understand that some behaviours that previously would have been managed or ignored will no longer be managed or ignored, and those behaviours will stop,” Webb said. “It is important our officials recognise, understand and differentiate between emotion and passion and something that is unacceptable.
“For too long officials have not necessarily been able to make that differentiation too well or they have chosen to turn a blind eye to certain things, maybe thinking it was the best way to deal with it, not make a fuss, not draw attention to what might have been perceived as an error on the field. But the power of example is so strong and we are seeing all the numbers are travelling in the wrong direction. We are seeing grassroots officials having a bad experience too often.
“This has to change in our sport. We are determined collectively in our game to do this. It is resting on the shoulders of the officials to do this but they understand by doing it consistently, they will improve the example that is set and the experience in the professional game. While initially there are some changes in behaviour that will have to be driven through, they will end up with a game that is more enjoyable from their point of view as well.”
Captains are expected to take responsibility for their teammates and if multiple players crowd the referee, or their personal is space invaded, at least one will be cautioned and reported to the FA, which may take further action against the club.
Anytime a player touches an official will lead to an automatic yellow card, as will the waving of an imaginary card.
Coaches will have to behave in the technical area
We’ve seen coaches run out of their technical area to complain about decisions, or generally lose their cool on the sideline. A new technical area code of conduct will require managers, coaches and other club staff members to behave in a responsible manner.
For instance, Arsenal boss Mikel Arteta was booked in the Community Shield after waving an imaginary yellow card in an attempt to get a Manchester City player cautioned.
“By being consistent and being on the front foot in dealing with those behaviours that are not acceptable, they will diminish,” Webb said. “That clearly has to be the intention — it has to be for the unacceptable behaviours that happen in the technical area.
“We’re now saying, based on the expectations have been placed on us as a group of people, that we will deal with them this season and by dealing with them consistently, regardless of who you are, what game it is, across all of the games that we serve, those behaviours will change.
“You’re there to do a job as a coach, that’s to coach a team. And of course, there’s going to be emotion, passion, to want to celebrate, and within that some disappointment or frustration. But it has to be controlled in a professional manner by the individuals. And if that doesn’t happen, then we will step in and sanction people who don’t behave in that particular way.
“We will stick to this, we’re not going to ease off or start to ignore behaviours in October or November. This will be here for good. We have a responsibility to the game at all levels and the future of the game as well, to work together to make it a better place for all participants.”
Only one member of coaching staff will be allowed to stand at the front of the technical area at a given time. If a second steps forward and starts issuing instructions, they will be booked.
There will also be stricter conditions imposed on managers who are sent off. They won’t be able to watch the rest of the game from the stands, and instead like a player shown a red card must return to the changing room. The manager will also be banned from taking part in any postmatch news conference and interview.
Get ready for more VAR audio presentations
In May, the Premier League for the first time shared the audio of VAR interactions from some of its games and explained where its referees had gotten things wrong.
The trial proved to be a success and will be back as a monthly show, starting in September.
“We’re committed going into the new season of at least once a month,” Webb confirmed. “We’ll be selecting clips that we think are interesting to the viewer, that give some real insight.”
No semi-automated offside … yet
Last year’s men’s World Cup and the 2023 Women’s World Cup both featured FIFA’s new semi-automated offside technology, while UEFA and Serie A last season started using a similar system to detect player positions.
You won’t see it in the Premier League this season, but it feels like it’s not far round the corner.
“We’re having close conversations with the Premier League in terms of which way we should go with this, which provider is the best one,” Webb said. “I think we are open to receiving any technology that makes us more efficient as well.
“We saw a situation last year where a goal was allowed to stand when the player was offside [for Brentford at Arsenal]. We want to minimise those levels, of course we do. We will continue working on the process.”
Extra cameras have been added around both penalty boxes to eliminate all the blind spots, which meant a player could be out of the picture at the point a pass was played.
Strict protocol over concussion
Any player who is removed from a game after suffering a head injury will not be able to play again for a minimum of seven days, and it could be as much as 12.
It means a player who goes off is almost certain to miss the following Premier League weekend.
The FA is determined to act with more responsibility with concussion protocols and player welfare.
A small, subtle change to red cards for denying a scoring chance
This one is going to be difficult to gain consistency over, and to create clear examples, but as of this season the law has been changed for red card for denying a goal-scoring opportunity inside the area.
The so-called “double jeopardy” exemption meant that if a defending player was making a genuine attempt to win the ball with a tackle, then he would only be booked if giving away a penalty.
The exemption has been widened slightly, and now says “a player challenging an opponent for the ball.”
It means upper-body challenges, e.g. shoulder-to-shoulder, which result in a foul may not be considered a red card offence inside the area.
Last season, Man City’s Joao Cancelo was sent off against Fulham after trying to ease Harry Wilson off the ball and bringing the player down. A penalty was awarded and Cancelo shown the red card; under the new interpretation it would just be a yellow card.